[Heavy Artillery; 2009]
The best way to learn about thrash metal is, ironically, not through its big names. Most of the “Big Four” of thrash (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer) became big by straying from the genre. Metallica started writing radio hits; Megadeth tried to do likewise. Anthrax dabbled in rap, alt-metal, and rock. Only Slayer stayed mostly true to thrash, but they are so sui generis that they are almost their own genre. Thus, the so-called “second tier”– bands that never made it big– comprise thrash’s true sound. These bands knock out machine-gun riffs and polka beats with no regard for the mainstream, and are often much more intense than the Big Four.
At War are one such band. Even when they began in the 1980s, they stood out from the thrash herd. They were from Virginia, not one of America’s thrash epicenters (New York City, Los Angeles, the Bay Area). They also weren’t pacifists. Much of 1980s thrash was a reaction to Reagan-era policies, with countless bands preaching the horrors of nuclear war. At War, however, were unabashed military supporters. They weren’t necessarily right-wing conservatives; one of their songs advocated the separation of church and state. But they had friends and family in the military, and paid tribute to that history through their music. Thus, military imagery pervaded their artwork, and military sounds peppered their albums.
Like most of their thrash colleagues, At War stood down in the 1990s once grunge came along. But popular music is cyclical, and the past few years have seen a resurgence in thrash metal. New bands have sprung up to emulate old ones, many of whom have reunited. Thus, At War’s new album Infidel feels both retro and contemporary. The band’s straight-ahead approach has not changed. Paul Arnold’s vocals remain commanding and rhythmic. Shawn Helsel’s guitars still blend Motörhead with German thrash. Dave Stone’s drums have the surprising subtlety they had in the 1980s. The band even retained old-school thrash producer Alex Perialas for this record. He elicited the band’s strongest performances to date. The band has never sounded so tight, nor has it ever had such big production. Such precision and cleanliness is slightly odd for a band known for its rawness. The sound has power, though, and reflects the realities of recording in a more technologically advanced time.
War requires an enemy. For At War, that has shifted from Communists to Muslim fundamentalists. The cover of Infidel depicts an eagle-tattooed man facing down an army of Jihadists. “Want You Dead” features a chorus of “They want you dead/ Kuffar die!/ They want you dead/ Open your eyes!” This is hardly diplomatic, but metal is not diplomatic music. Infidel is a strong statement. Agreement with it is up to the listener.
— Cosmo Lee, August 25, 2009
At War – Infidel (HA5500920 / 802215500920 / C13) Available Now!